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Agriculture: Tool for Mass Deforestation or Social and Environmental Well-being?

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Posted: Thursday, June 11, 2020. 9:57 am CST.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Breaking Belize News.

By Mikaila Hudson: As highlighted in the Belize Economic Recovery Plan, agriculture will be essential for rebuilding the economy, creating jobs, improving national food security, and increasing Belize’s self-sufficiency overall. However, the approach taken to agricultural development will determine the environmental well-being of Belize, and have consequences on tourism and climate change.

According to Global Forest Watch, as of 2000, 80% of Belize had natural forest cover. Between 2001 and 2019, we lost an estimated 235,000 hectares of forest cover, most of which was caused by commodity-driven deforestation (the conversion of forest to other uses including agriculture). The majority of our forest cover is located outside of national reserves, and this includes significant portions of the incredibly ecologically important wildlife corridor. If we lose our forest cover, we lose biodiversity and we lose tourism. The trees also act to minimise the impacts of climate change on our weather systems (which are becoming increasingly unpredictable and harsh), and our coastal towns and cities (at-risk from the rising sea-level). Fortunately, there are sustainable and economically viable agricultural alternatives to clearing the land.

At the leading edge of agriculture today are approaches such as Forrest Farming and Regenerative/Conservation Agriculture, effective on both small and large scales. Forest Farming involves cultivating high-value crops including herbs/spices, medicinal plants, foods (eg. mushrooms, nuts, berries and cocoa) and decorative plants (eg. palm fronds) beneath a managed forest canopy, which can be the existing natural forest canopy. Where gaps occur, the forest canopy itself can also include sustainably harvested timber and fruit/nut producing species as an additional source of income. Regenerative/Conservation Agriculture is particularly useful for increasing the production value and health of land that has already been cleared, and again involves growing a variety of species together.

Aside from the ecological benefits to these approaches, there are also important and proven economic benefits that make these solutions win-win. The economic benefits include:

  • Increased production. Production can be increased by choosing species that help each other to grow and/or reduce the presence of pests and disease.
  • Lowered risk as a result of diversification. Diversified crops means increased protection for farmers when disease hits or markets crash (as the sugar and papaya markets did). Even if one crop is lost or loses its value, there is a good chance that the other crops will still be able to provide income protecting farmers and their families from financial catastrophe.
  • Maintaining/improving soil quality over time. The soil where slash and burn practices are used are only fertile for a few years and require rotation to give the soil a chance to build nutrients again, whereas these approaches add nutrients to the soil in a more effective way that will keep the soil healthy and productive for future generations, and allows land to be used continuously.

In Belize, we have the opportunity to take these approaches and put them into action in a way no other country has done so far. We can be agricultural leaders. Social and environmental well-being and sustainability should be a central feature of agricultural development going forward. While the government is a key player in determining these plans and guiding development, it ultimately falls to each and every farmer to do their part to protect our natural resources and the future of Belize.

 

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